Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Colour, culture and freedom of identity


When we judge people according to their appearances, or – in the Andrew Bolt case – their lack of particular appearances, we enter into a dangerous and potentially very damaging world.  It is full of painful memories and historical violence. It holds attitudes that can cut to the heart and soul of others in ways those of us who do not see ourselves as ‘coloured’ can struggle to imagine.

A few years ago, a senior member of an international service organisation approached me. Their Australian-based groups were doing very well financially and they wished to extend their education scholarships to more Aboriginal people. 

I suggested a few ways they could think of supporting some local people who were studying at the University.  One person that I had in mind was studying medicine.  A few days later, he emailed me: ‘On reflection and a discussion with a fellow member … I feel we need to get involved with ‘full blood’ indigenous … our two current holders do not ‘look like’ aborigines’.  

My initial response was one of surprise and righteous indignation, until I reminded myself how I had grown up in Australia and been influenced by attitudes that shaped my understanding of race and culture.  I had never met an Aboriginal person until I was in my twenties, but my attitudes towards them, and other races, had been formed well before then.

The person I had recommended for support came from a family that had experienced family separation.  She had not grown up knowing her Aboriginal family until later in life.  Like many Aboriginal families, decisions that non-Aboriginal people made about them were often shaped by deeply ingrained, often negative and unreflective attitudes about race. 

Race was understood as something genetic and with particular physical characteristics.  It came with attitudes around western culture and notions of ‘civilisation’.  In more recent years, many Australians have come to understand that their culture arises out of a rich mixture of particular genetic and social influences.  We are less inclined to see ourselves as simply the products of our genes and our ancient genealogies.  We have choice in relation to what we claim from the past.

Each country has its own particular history in relation to race and how it treated the Indigenous peoples of the land.  Australia’s history – shaped by early colonial relations, the absence of any treaties with Aboriginal people, the lack of a formal recognition in the Constitution and the institution of a White Australia policy – led to Government policies where Aboriginal children were continually being removed, and over several decades, simply on the basis of their appearance. 

The film Rabbit Proof Fence told one such story.  What made the film even more powerful was the presence of those who had shared this experience being presented at the end of the film.  This was no story from an ancient past but a particular and recent Australian story.  As such, the experience of family separation based on race lies very close to the surface of many Aboriginal memories and experiences.  It has provided a trauma that will take years to heal.

As for my Aboriginal friend, she is now a doctor.  I have not had the heart to tell her that once she was judged for not being dark enough, whatever the other obstacles she had to overcome to complete university studies.  I am deeply proud of her efforts and achievements. 

I also know people who have not taken up their Aboriginal ancestry and that I respect their decisions.  However, her story reminds me that there is still much unfinished business in relation to race in my own country.  Andrew Bolt might argue that his comments are about freedom of speech.  I argue that they are more about freedom of identity.

Brian McCoyBrian F McCoy SJ is Senior Research Fellow, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at La Trobe University.

Topic tags: Brian McCoy, Andrew Bolt, aboriginal, race, colour, culture, skin, ethnicity, identity, freedom of speech



submit a comment

Existing comments

"I also know people who have not taken up their Aboriginal ancestry and that I respect their decisions."
It's a decision? - in the eyes of the Court you have just breached the Racial Discrimination Act in the exact same way as Mr Bolt!

SG | 06 October 2011  

Brilliant! How one anecdote can illustrate an important social truth - if a free society means anything is to be able to create one's own identity and live with it.

Uncle Pat | 06 October 2011  

SG-Where did you get this understanding of the Court decision? To respect someone's decision not to pursue their ancestory is very distant from making a judgement on their actions related to the colour of their skin. A person does not choose their cultural heritage but it is up to each person to decide if to identify closely with this culture and pursue it further.

AB | 06 October 2011  

We should hear more stories such as this, more often. That Indigenous people are intelligent, I knew this from my readings about them since I migrated here from Europe. But I still find that in the 21st century there's the idea that they are less intelligent than us seems to persist forever.

The way the Gillard govt is behaving with them in the NT Intervention is one revolting example of this. Instead of helping them we are practically killing them.
Please Fr Brian, we need more good stories!!!

Nathalie | 06 October 2011  

Well done Brian McCoy. I know of one donor who has supported 15 people of Aboriginal background though Law and as well their accommodation. She remains annonymous.

Bev Smith | 06 October 2011  

Since we're so sensitive about factual errors since the Bolt decision, we need to remember that the film "Rabbit Proof Fence", is riddled with factual errors deeply offensive to historical personages, as Keith Windschuttle has pointed out in detail ("Fabrication of Aboriginal History" Vol #). And if Windschuttle is not considered authoritative enough, readers should just compare the book "Beyond the Rabbit Proof Fence" with the film and see for themselves. I understand Molly Craig said, after having seen the film "That's not my story".

So why is it actionable for Andrew Bolt to get facts wrong about which grandmother, etc was aboriginal, on his was to making a point about rent-seeking which many aboriginals agree with, but this offensive error-ridden film be upheld as exemplary?

Mindblowing double standards.

HH | 06 October 2011  

I take it that the word "knowingly" should be added so that it reads "I had never KNOWINGLY met an Aboriginal person until I was in my twenties ...".
SG misses the point - it is the individual’s right to decide what truths they wish to reveal about themselves.

Tom | 06 October 2011  

From what I read from Andrew Bolt was that he was saying it was people with a touch of aboriginal in their genes and through this were able to claim benefits unavailable to the general Australian. I personally know of a case where a young girl went to her grandfather (he's aboriginal) to get him to sign a paper to enable her to get basically free university, rent assistance etc.etc. He refused so she went to VCAT where she was given the approval. Instantly because of a touch of different genes she leapfrogs everyone else. In time she will say that she worked so hard to get her education but really, no way does it compare to someone on their own putting themselves through with part time work etc. etc. So why should she be so privileged just because of her ancestors?

Grego | 06 October 2011  

"We have choice in relation to what we claim from the past."
My ancestry would indicate that I am in rough terms genetically 1/8th German and 7/8ths Irish. In the light of the above quoted dictum from Fr McCoy (or is it a human right?) I am encouraged to seek either German or Irish social benefits which I understand to be very generous. I am not hopeful of success, however, and rather expect that my "choice" would carry no purchase whatever. Thank goodness that in Australia past governments have at least recognised our indigenous people and provided social benefits for the disadvantage British colonisation imposed on them. If race , as Fr McCoy states "arises out of a rich mixture of particular genetic and social influences", perhaps some, socialised entirely in say a European/Australian ethic, and blissfully unaware of a particular genetic past until reaching adult life, might not qualify on the basis of their genetic past for taxpayer paid social benefits1!

Fr McCoy is to be admired for his dedicaion to our indigenous people and rightfully points to the injustice and discriminaton against his indigenous friend studying Medicine. I lived in a time when such discrimination at Medical School applied to Catholics. Maybe social justice does not only apply to the socially disadvantaged.

john frawley | 06 October 2011  

You lose a lot of credibility when you cite the film Rabbit Proof Fence as reliable historical record, you lose a lot of credibility. Craig's story was grossly distorted: http://members.optushome.com.au/jimball/Rabbitproofmyth.html

Denis Smith | 06 October 2011  

Tom, And it is every ones right to question that "truth" to discuss if it is in fact the truth. I mean should we unquestioningly accept everything someone says?

Roger | 06 October 2011  

The fact that she succeeded without assistance proves she did not need it in the first place. You have shot your own argument through the foot! Welfare should be provided on a needs basis to needy whites and blacks alike, or in exceptional cases on the basis of race with an income and assets test attached. Indigneous Australians do not need Governments and their assistance to decide if they are Indigenous or not. They are a proud independent race who gain confidence from among themselves and their own. They will prevail under their won strength with assistance only when they really need it.

ghanga darin | 06 October 2011  

Mr McCoy

I would like to take issue with you regarding your statement para 7 (the lack of a formal recognition in the Constitution and the institution of a White Australia policy). Those words sir, are misleading.

My suggestion is Mr McCoy read the original Imperial Australian Constitution Act 1900 (UK) S50(xxvi). The instrument clearly demonstrates a separation of powers, which recognises the First Australians their sovereignty and Native Title. Take special notice that the British Parliament had not an understanding about the Aborigines, however the Constitution directs the Member States of the Commonwealth of Australia to identify their Aborigines and make special laws in their favour.

Mr McCoy I am pleased to advise that special laws for Aborigines was enacted by the Tasmanian Parliament in accordance with the Australian Constitution Act 1900 (UK).

Tony William Brown
Cape Barren Islander

Tony William Brown | 07 October 2011  

Thank you Brian for this insightful piece. When discussing indigenous people, we need to remember that these people of the land, be they in Australia, Ireland, Germany or my country, Aotearoa New Zealand, started life with injustice governing their being. For example in NZ there were numerous laws that restricted the way Maori could own land and we were all educated to think of Maori as good only for manual work. I don't understand the term 'half-caste' when there has been extensive inter-marriage as Maori sought to gain some of the benefits of the 'white man'. But if someone chooses to identify with a culture that is the subject of institutionalised racism, the rest of us should honour their choice.

Cecily McNeill | 09 October 2011  

Some here are defending Andrew Bolt for raising concerns about rent-seeking among people with allegedly weaker links to their Aboriginal heritage. Mr Bolt did not lose the court case because he raised those concerns, but because he used his public position to maliciously spread false information about a number of individuals. His actions as a journalist should not be defended by anyone here. Similarly, Keith Windschuttle’s work in this area is regarded poorly by other historians, not because of his controversial views, but because his work did not meet the minimum standards of scholarship and accuracy that are expected of someone in his profession. Rabbit Proof Fence is a movie, a piece of story telling art. Although it is based on true events, it is naïve to expect it to be accurate in every detail, and of course it does not purport to tell the story of every member of the stolen generations. Its aim is to convey the emotional impact of forced removal, not to provide a factual documentary. Unlike the efforts of Bolt and Windschuttle, it earned the acclaim it received.

Drew | 14 October 2011  

Drew, Windschuttle's work is certainly regarded poorly. Precisely by those historians whose fabrications he has ruthlessly exposed. You only have to read their pathetic, ad hominem-laden response in books like "Whitewash" to see how flimsy their case against him is.

"Rabbit Proof Fence" is not merely not accurate in every tiny detail, as one might expect of any film : in many of the substantive departures from "accuracy", it seriously slanders historical people. Consider: if a film called, say, "We of the Never Never" departed from the historically-based novel of that name by systemically imputing analogously shameful, even criminal, deeds to identifiable historical aboriginal personages and groups, what do you think the reaction would be? "Oh, but it's a work of art! You'd be naïve to expect it to be accurate in every detail."??? Dream on.

HH | 14 October 2011  

Correction: I didn't mean to imply that 'Rabbit Proof Fence' was inaccurate in "every tiny detail", which is evidently not the case, but rather that it was inaccurate not merely in tiny details.

HH | 14 October 2011  

Similar Articles

Insanity rules after ten years of war in Afghanistan

  • Irfan Yusuf
  • 07 October 2011

Today is the tenth anniversary of the war on Afghan jihadists. We civilised Westerners decided we’d had enough of barbarians flying planes into our skyscrapers, killing thousands of our civilians. And hence we sent our own planes to drop huge bombs on their villages and towns.


Super concessions rob the poor to pay the rich

  • Lin Hatfield Dodds
  • 04 October 2011

A third of taxpayer-funded superannuation concessions — around $10 billion a year — are directed to the top 5 per cent of income earners. People living on or below the poverty line get no such support. This week's Tax Forum must ask: Are we proud of how we redistribute our national wealth?